Glass Houses, Stones, and IT Projects
Over the course of my career, I have spent thousands of hours providing a combination of Program and Project Management Services for all shapes and sizes of IT projects. Over the course of these engagements, I regularly overhear Business resources disparaging their IT counterparts. A few common qualms I can identify are: “They just don’t understand our business,” “IT does not focus on the right things,” and a personal favorite, “They are not strategic enough; they just want to take orders.” When I was a kid, my Mom advised me to, “never cast stones if you live in a glass house.” That is, do not criticize others for faults that you very well may share. In regards to the aforementioned overheard remarks, I let my Business partners vent, but then quickly point out that experience has shown me that issues on IT projects are typically a two-way street—the business and the IT teams share the blame. As this can be construed as confrontational, I quickly turn the conversation in a more productive direction by pointing out four ways in which business organizations can positively impact their IT projects.
Include IT Partners in Strategic Discussions
IT organizations are still seen far too often as operators and executioners instead of strategic partners of the Business. While already a poor approach, its negative effect on productivity is magnified in today’s environment where the growing popularity and necessity of technologies like Cloud Computing and Storage, Big Data, and Mobile Accessibility are at the forefront of business strategy and innovation. An increasing number of successful organizations are realizing the importance of applying technology to solve business problems and to drive strategy formation. These early adopters are reaping real benefits through improved customer satisfaction and increased revenue.
However, this does not happen automatically, nor is it the responsibility of IT to drive the process. I have yet to meet a strong technology resource who thirsts to sit in a dingy back room and run reports. These individuals’ talent goes beyond technical skills, and their understanding of technology mixed with a sense of overall business goals can help bring an organization to a more informed decision. The next time a business person considers disparaging IT for “not being strategic,” they should first ask if they have invited their technology partners to the appropriate meetings, allowing them to participate in strategic discussions.
Have a Plan
If you are a Business leader and do not have a plan for your IT initiatives, create one. If you already have one, share it with your IT partners. Better yet, invite IT partners to participate in your planning process (see previous paragraph) and ask for input and feedback. To clarify, I am defining an IT plan as the combination of a structured project repository, a defined intake and prioritization process, business cases that include plans for benefits realization, and multiple roadmaps for various time horizons that make sense to your business. It is a clear and organized structure—simply requesting one hundred projects with nothing more than project names documented is not planning and could ultimately lead to project failure. Common signs that the Business does not have enough control over their IT projects are: frequently changing priorities, inconsistent resource dedication to a project, and unrealistic timeline expectations. Operating without a strategic plan puts IT behind the proverbial 8-ball from day one, and it is nearly impossible to recover. The team is expected to deliver a project with little to no background information, business sponsorship that is lacking if existent at all, and delivery models so abbreviated that basic project phases are forcibly neglected. The next time there is frustration because IT is “not flexible enough”, consider whether the Business has provided the information necessary to understand priorities, to properly sequence projects, and to confidently align IT resources to meet business needs.
Dedicate an Adequate Amount of Appropriately Skilled Resource Capacity
Business Case documentation, requirements definition, user acceptance testing (UAT), change management, stakeholder communication, and end user training are all responsibilities on IT projects that belong to the Business. Too often, staffing discussions focus only on resources for design, build, and system test. While never formally stated, the idea seems to be that the other software development lifecycle (SDLC) phases will either take care of themselves or can simply be skipped if business resources are not available. This could not be further from the truth. Generally, the Business team owns the budget for projects and must confirm that appropriately skilled resources are available at the right time and in the right capacity to meet overall project milestones. If these resources are not available, then other project drivers (i.e. scope, timeline and budget) must be modified in order to bring the plan back in alignment. For example, if there are not enough properly skilled resources to document requirements, then the date for starting design must be pushed back. Too often, I have seen IT organizations expected to design and build a deliverable based on unfinished or poorly documented requirements. In these situations, the Business should be held accountable if the quality of the end product is not up to par. Furthermore, the IT team should not be blamed if a final product goes unused because there was no change management or communication plan in place to introduce the product and its value to the user community.
Consider the Total Cost of Ownership
It seems like common sense, but IT assets should not be thought of in one year increments. However, Business owners sometimes fail to think far enough ahead, leaving them surprised and disappointed when capital and expense budgets are impacted in subsequent years. Once an application is built, both the IT and the Business organizations will need to consider future changes and enhancements that the application will require in their upcoming budgets. Otherwise, the application can become outdated and unused—a total waste of resources. There is often the need to hire additional resources to manage the asset from a business perspective in order to understand how the application fits into the overall business strategy and to plan, manage, and drive the application forward. I often hear the Business lamenting that IT does not take on the enhancement determination process. While it requires partnering with IT, the Business is ultimately responsible for identifying opportunities for improvement and to drive application changes.
In addition to “never cast stones if you live in a glass house”, my Mom also imparted the following wisdom on me growing up, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” While I generally live by this advice outside of work, I could not be more opposed to it when it comes to managing projects. Sometimes things do not go well, and often diplomatic yet direct communication is required to fix the problem and to get the project back on track. That being said, all Business leaders should be living by the guidelines outlined in this blog before casting these stones at their IT partners. Kenway Consulting has a proven track record of bridging the gap between Business and IT organizations in order to drive successful projects and programs. For an assessment of your project governance or advice on struggling projects, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.